My Career as a Jeweler

Earth, Air, Water, and Fire Necklace,
Sterling, fossil, garnet, and Colorcore

Most of you know me as a Tarot designer and author, but before I designed my first Tarot deck I was well known as craft jeweler. Recently, I posted some of my jewelry on Facebook. They received a lot of attention and my Facebook friends seemed to want to know more about that period of my career. This article is about how I got involved in jewelry and I will display some examples of my work. 

In the 1970s when Rose Ann and I got married and we were back from our honeymoon in Europe, I worked as an art teacher in a grammar school near the New Jersey shore. The pay was low, and I had to have it divided over the ten months that school was in session. That left two months in the Summer with no pay. To make money during the summer, I took advantage of the outdoor art shows that were popular in towns along the Atlantic shore. The biggest one was the annual Maurice Podell Art Exhibition. It was my best earning event, but even though I was doing well selling my drawings and paintings, I noticed that the exhibitors in the crafts section were doing much better. So, I decided I would become a craftsperson.

To earn a degree as an art teacher, I had to become proficient at several crafts, Including, ceramics, textiles, and metalwork, but the one craft that I was most fond of, since I was first introduced to it in high school, was enameling. I realized that enameling was a technique used in jewelry, and that I had some basic knowledge of sculpting and soldering metal, so I decided to become a jeweler.  

Enamel is colored glass fused to a metal base at high temperatures (1,500 degrees F) in a kiln. It works best when fused to pure metals: copper, fine silver, or 24K gold.

Ancient Egyptian Pendant

The ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians made colorful jewelry by shaping flat pieces of lapis, turquoise, and carnelian to fit into cells created by flat gold wire fuse to a gold base. Eventually artisans realized that they could substitute pieces of colored glass for the stones. But it was not until later that the Greeks developed the technology that allowed them to grind the glass to a power and melt it in the gold cells at a temperature that would melt the glass, fuse it to the metal, but not melt the metal.  Once fused in place, the surface of the enamel was ground smooth with fine stones. This is called cloisonné enamel and it reached a high point during the Byzantine period.

Byzantine Cloisonné

The Celtic and Germanic people of northern Europe also used enameling to bring color to their jewelry, but besides using wire to create cells for the glass, they carved out areas in a thick metal plate and fuse the enamel in these recessed cells.  This technique is called champlevé. Champlevé remained popular during the Middle Ages and was used to decorate religious objects.

Bucket Detail from the Anglo Saxon Sutton Hoo find
A Limoges Gilt Copper and Champlevé Enamel Tabernacle, 12th/13th Century

During the Middle Ages, Limoges, France was a center for champlevé enameling. It was here in the Gothic period and in the Renaissance that Limoges artisans, possibly with the help of alchemists, developed a new technique in which they fused glass to the surface of the metal without creating cells. This allowed them to blend colors and create shading so that they were painting with glass. This technique is called Limoges. Key to the technique is the use of an extremely finely ground opaque white glass that is fired in numerous layers to create highlights against a darker surface.

Dido, Limoges Enamel, 1540
Limoges Grisaille Enamel, 1540

Limoges is actually the technique that I started experimenting with in school.  But at first, my technique was basic. Having little money to start my jewelry career, I focused on enameling on copper, the cheapest metal, that would work. I used opaque colors with layers of the fine opaque white to create form. The school I taught in had a kiln that I was allowed to bring home to fire the pieces, and I was in business. After a while I set up a bench and bought a drill and a jeweler’s saw, which allowed me to cut out shapes. This is a piece from that period.

Lotus Pendant, enamel on copper

When I earned enough from the business I began to invest in silver and started developing my metal working. Instead of casting, I concentrated on sculpting the silver directly. I learned to hammer and raise the silver from the back, a technique called repoussé, and punched details into the front with various shaped tools, called chasing. I bought a torch and a buffing wheel, and I was ready to quit teaching and do this full time. Quitting my job might have been a scary thing to do, but luckily, they were paying me so little that I was immediately earning more from jewelry than teaching. Rose Ann joined me in the business. She did some of the production work with me but mainly she was more interested in marketing at the craft shows and I was more interested in designing and creating.    

This is an early chased and repousséd brooch that I designed for the University Museum in Philadelphia. It is based on a Scythian stag in their collection.

Scythian Stag Brooch, sterling

As my work became more sophisticated, I added filing and engraving to create a more sculptural form like these Celtic designs and other pieces.

Celtic Jewelry, sterling

I also started carving and sculpting the metal, as you can see in these pieces.

Dragon Pendant, 14K, sterling, enamel, emerald
Mistress of the Animals, sterling, garnets

Eventually, we were able to exhibit in the top craft shows in the country including the Smithsonian in Washington, and the American Craft Council shows in Baltimore, New York, Atlanta, Dallas, and San Francisco.  These shows were very competitive, and we had to be accepted by a jury to be allowed to exhibit. To prepare for the juries, I had to create high end portfolio pieces and have them photographed by a professional photographer, who specialized in photographing crafts. As I needed to create more elaborate pieces, my enameling evolved, and I focused on cloisonné.  This is a cloisonné brooch that I made at that time. It is called Leda. The enamel has 24K gold wire set on fine silver, the setting is repousséd sterling, 14K gold, with a ruby for the eye. I entered in in the 1984 Wilhelm Muller Competition, in Germany.  It won an honorable mention and was exhibited at the Stadtischen Museum, the Goldsmith’s House in Hanan, and was on tour until 1985.

Leda, cloisonné, sterling, 14K, and ruby

Here is a cloisonné necklace that I designed. The create the gold areas I would fire clear enamel over 24K gold foil.

Winged Spirit Cloisonné Necklace, sterling, 14K, carnelian, opal

Here is a cloisonné brooch that Rose Ann made, called Flower-Bird.

Flower-Bird Cloisonné Brooch, sterling, quartz

These pieces also earned my work a place in galleries and museum, including the American Craft Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Delaware Art Museum. I was even invited to create an ornament for the national Christmas tree when Clinton was president. They also generated a lot of publicity in craft and jewelry magazines. These are two pages from a 1984 issue of Lapidary Journal.

The sculpture is sterling, 14K gold, opal, carved moonstone, horn and, Colorcore Formica. The triangle at the top detaches to be worn as a brooch. It was sold at the American Craft Council show in Baltimore that year to a gallery owner. The Turoe Box was made with a grant from the New Jersey council on the Arts. It is sterling, 22K and 14K gold, emerald, ruby, and has a deerskin lining. I sold it to Steve Martin at the WBAI Craft Show in New York. The Rabbit Fan Brooch is sterling, 14K gold, and lapis lazuli.

Here are some other boxes that I made.

Cat Temple Box, sterling, antler, Colorcore, gold leaf, tourmaline
Comet Box, sterling, 24K, opal, with a silk lining

Here are two other fan brooches.

Japanese Fan Brooch, sterling, 14K, gold Leaf, lapis lazuli
Honeybee Fan Brooch, sterling, 14K, citrine

At that time, I began experimenting with alternative materials like Colorcore Formica, antler, and horn. This piece is called Kore. The figure is carved antler, set against Colorcore with gold leaf, the setting and chain are sterling. The pink rhodochrosite stone in set in antler. I liked using antler as an alternative to ivory because deer drop them every year and I could search for them in the forest.

Kore, antler, sterling, Colorcore, gold leaf, rhodochrosite

This piece is called The Philosopher’s Stone. It is sterling, 14K gold, carved horn, antler, Colorcore, gold leaf, opals, and turquoise. It was purchased by a Unitarian minister.

The Philosopher’s Stone, sterling, 14K, horn, antler, Colorcore, gold leaf, opal, turquoise

This is a page from a 1992 issue of Ornament magazine. The House Brooch was in a gallery show at the American Craft Museum that year and it received a lot of publicity. The brooch is sterling, 14K gold, Colorcore, slate, horn, and emerald. The woman who bought it told me that she was wearing the brooch on her vacation in Italy when a woman came up to her and said: “Where did you get that brooch; it is famous?”  

Ornament Magazine, 1992

This is a series of pieces that I made by carving horn and antler. I added 14k gold details, opals, and a garnet. You can see how fine deer antler is a good substitute for ivory. these pieces were inspired by ancient Spanish sculptures from the 6th century BC.

Horn Carvings, horn, antler, 14K, opals, garnet

In the 1990s I returned to Limoges enameling but in a more evolved form.  I repousséd the fine silver. I use transparent glass that I ground myself, and opaque white that I ground and sifted to make it finer. I now used the 24K cloisonne wire placed flat to add gold details, and I made 14K gold settings. These are some examples. By the end of the 1990s there were less crafts stores and galleries still in business, and inspired by my dreams and by synchronistic events, I switched my attention to illustrating and creating Tarot decks.

Limoges Profile Brooch Red Head, fine silver, 24K, 14K, enamel
Limoges Deer Brooch,
fine silver 24K, 14K, enamel
Limoges Mermaid Brooch, fine silver 24K, 14K, enamel
Limoges Gardener Pendant,
fine silver, 24K, 14K, enamel
Limoges Portrait Brooch,
fine silver, 24K, 14K, enamel
Limoges Portrait Brooch Brunette,
fine silver, 24K, 14K, enamel

One final piece:

Boat Necklace, sterling and fine sliver, 14K, horn, antler, Colorcore, emerald, garnet

About robertmplace

I am an illustrator and author best known for creating the Alchemical Tarot and the Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery and writing The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination.
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2 Responses to My Career as a Jeweler

  1. Margaret Kilbride says:

    Maggie Kilbride. I first saw your work in a show I believe was in MorristownN.J. in the late 70’s. I fell in love with your work and there eas a particular piece, enameled a hunchback sort of man unhappily within a circle. You said at the time you hsd a hard time settling him into the circle he kept wanting to move. How I wish I could have afforded a piece of your and Rose’s work. My husband at the time was a sculptor and went on to produce a piece for New Jersey called Nexus. At the time though, we were struggling newlyweds. Now he has died and I have all his work and memories. Thank you.

  2. What a wonderful journey for you and your wife! The pieces are beautiful ☺️🌺

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